DUNEDIN — Fresh off a shift at Luekens Food Villa, Jim Davis, 18 at the time, walked along the seawall at the Dunedin Marina. Without any sound, a sailboat glided by, quickly came about at the seawall, inches away from hitting it.
The captain was Ben Skinner and the boat was the Mexicana, a Morgan 34.
"Ben tacked, said 'hi,' and then went back out," recalled Davis, 61. "It was a vision. I realized I wanted to get to know him better. He could make that boat go.''
Mr. Skinner died on Aug. 17. He was 95.
On the day he died, Mr. Skinner, an accomplished sailor, businessman and devoted community member whose family's roots in Dunedin go back to the 1800s, had spent several hours enjoying the wildlife outside his home on Bayshore Boulevard. It was the home he had lived in for more than 50 years, where he and his wife, Angela, who died in 2004, raised their five children.
"He loved his house, being outside and looking at the water. That day (while in a wheelchair) he fed all the herons and crows and ducks and watched the birds at the special bird feeder he made where the squirrels couldn't get in,'' said his daughter Mary Narine. "And the sunset the day he died over his water was the most beautiful I had ever seen.''
Mr. Skinner's grandfather, L.B., was a citrus grower and the second mayor of the city. He created equipment that helped wash, scrub, and sort the fruit swiftly. His father, Bronson, was also a renowned businessman in the citrus industry. He created an orange juice concentrate that led to the U.S. Government funding a concentrate plant in Dunedin during World War II.
After earning a chemical engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Skinner joined the family enterprises in 1945. In 1952, the family began another business, Allied Precision Products, which Mr. Skinner headed until its closing in 2011.
A recipient of the Dunedin Senior Hall of Fame Award as well as a History Maker Award from the Dunedin Historical Society, Mr. Skinner's name is synonymous with "the history of how Dunedin was developed,'' said Vinnie Luisi, Dunedin's historian. "The family did so much for the area. Along with the development of their machinery, for years the Skinners' businesses brought jobs to the area.''
Mr. Skinner was also an advocate for Dunedin's parks and waterfront. Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski first became friends with him through the Dunedin Boat Club, where they both were longtime members.
"He and his wife loved having people on their boat,'' Bujalski said. "He was a big advocate for Honeymoon Island and could tell you every curve of St. Joseph's Sound and how it got there and why the depths are different now.''
Although recently Mr. Skinner's activities have been limited, Bujalski recalled many instances in the mid-2000s of him appearing in front of the City Commission.
"I've been behind the dais for 11 years, and I remember getting nervous when I'd see him coming,'' she joked. "He paid attention to what was going on, and if there was something he was concerned about, he'd let us know.''
Mr. Skinner also had a boisterous sense of humor, Davis said.
"In his later years he'd joke and tell me he really had to go out and find a younger friend and back when the only way to reach someone was by radio when you were on the water, all of a sudden we would hear Ben's voice,'' he said. "My boat was named Camelot, and so many times I remember all of a sudden hearing, "Oh Camelot, Oh Camelot, where art thou Camelot?' ''
Perhaps Davis' favorite memory of Mr. Skinner was a trip to the Virgin Islands for the Skinners' 50th anniversary.
"He adored his wife, and he sent 26 of us letters, family and close friends, persuading us to join him, cruising the Virgin Islands,'' he said. "He told us he would never ask us for anything else.''
For two weeks, the group sailed on three chartered sailboats.
"We went from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the British Virgin Islands,'' he said. ''What an experience he gave us,'' he said.
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.